Watch out, universe – here comes Julie Sage

At 14, the aspiring astrophysicist has already made her mark

Photo by Kendal J. Bush

Julie is shown here at MakeIt Labs in Nashua using a laser cutter to
cut her network logo out of plastic.

Fourteen-year-old Julie Seven Sage of Nashua has been given an awesome responsibility for someone so young.

She has been tasked with protecting something precious. You could call it a light. As hard as it is to guard this light, she dutifully does her job. She fattens its belly with a steady diet of study, knowledge and passion. She lets it out to stretch its rays into deep, dark corners of the universe where answers await discovery. She protects it like a tiger with her cub from those who wish to see it extinguished.

All of this comes with a price, but this light — her love for and understanding beyond her years of science — is worth it. Because the more she nurtures this light, the brighter and more powerful it becomes, until one day it just might, just maybe, do nothing less than save the world.

That’s not far-fetched given what she’s already accomplished. Her experiments won a spot on NASA sounding rockets, not once but twice; she won the Mars Generation’s 24 Under 24 Innovators in STEAM and Space Advocacy Award; she’s working at the MIT Media Lab to build a CubeSat for climate science; she was the NH State Merit winner for the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge for her Sage Survival System invention; and she runs her own web-based science news program.

“Science can do almost anything,” she wrote in her original comic Estron, featuring the eponymous superhero scientist, which won second place in the middle school division of the National Science Foundation’s Generation Nano: Superheroes Inspired by Science comic contest, “But it takes the person to make something of it.”

 “Watch out world,” she wrote, “Estron has landed.”

Science from the start

There isn’t a time that Julie remembers not loving science.

“Really I don’t know when the first time it was that I got interested in science; I’ve just aaallwaays been interested in science since I was born,” Julie said, with the emphasis another teenager might apply to a favorite boy band. “Really what spoke to me was the mysteriousness of it all. There’s so much that we don’t know and I want to discover so much and also I just find it super cool. I find science cool in general, but I just have a pull towards it. I just love it so much.”

She read her first book on her own at age 3, although she’d shown signs even earlier than that, said Sage’s mom Christina, an electrical engineer by profession.

“Even before she turned 1, you could see her with her finger, following the writing, so she knew it was significant,” Christina Sage said, and jokes. “My husband [Daniel Sage] and I were like, ‘Oh, boy. We’re in trouble.”

Christina said Julie was a voracious reader, which led to daily walks to the library with her dad to satisfy her appetite. She really loved all books, but when she discovered space books, it was different.

“Oh my gosh, when she found space — forget it!” Christina said. “Her eyes were so wide open. …She was just soaking it up.”

She soaked up so much that, as her mom tells it, Julie at age 5 noticed an error in one of her books on the solar system. The book said the sun was made of gas. Julie begged to differ — it’s made of plasma (and she’s right). Christina said Julie would not leave it alone until her mother agreed to write the company asking them to fix it.

“One of the editors responded,” Christina said, laughing with great pride at the memory, “and they said, ‘thank you very much for catching that. Yes, we do know that the sun is made of plasma, however the audience that they were going toward doesn’t quite understand that yet.’”

But Julie did.

“They said, ‘you want to come work for us?’” Christina said.

But it wasn’t until the wise old age of 6 that Julie landed on what her exact scientific path would be. As she recalls it, she was sitting with her dad, whose full-time job she said is “taking care of me.”

With some finality, she announced to him that she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up and that it would have to do with space. He assumed she wanted to be an astronaut. No, she said — too dangerous. He explained to her what an astronomer does and that still didn’t sound quite right.

“He said, ‘well then, what do you want to do?’” Julie recalls, “And I said, ‘I want to know how all the stars move and I want to know how everything works. And I want to know how the universe works and I want to know all the calculations behind it.’

“He said you want to be an astrophysicist … ‘you mean like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking?’ because I knew who they were at the time. And I’m like, ‘yeah, like that.’ So ever since then I wanted to be an astrophysicist.”

Facing challenges

To encourage this, Christina said she and her husband simply entertained and answered their girl’s questions, however advanced, however out there. If she exhausted their knowledge, they’d get her to a computer or book, lift her up on their laps and show her how to look up the answers for herself.

By age 10, she was ready for her first online class at Harvard:
Super-Earths and Life.

“I got a 96 percent,” she said of the class. “The next year, I met the professor and he told me that most of the underclassmen who actually took that class with him in real life, actually failed the class. So he was very impressed.”

When it came time for in-person schooling, however, things weren’t so easy. The academics were fine — she’s a straight-A student. It was the kids who made it hard for her.

Her mother recalls it being particularly bad this past year. Some of them would take her test papers so they could announce her grade and taunt her if it wasn’t a perfect score. Some others went the opposite direction.

“They would be like, ‘oh, you’re a nerd,’ ‘oh, you’re a geek,’” Julie said. “And like when I would do book reports about a science thing (in elementary school), people would start screaming at me in the middle of my report.”

While Julie said she’s found tremendous support and encouragement from online scientific communities of peers, she can’t say the say the same for the boys in her classes.

“No one would listen to me on projects, even in science, because they’re like, ‘oh, you’re a girl.’”

Maybe next year they can call NASA or MIT to get her bona fides and allay their concerns. In the meantime, she said she just does the work and tries, although it’s hard, to not let it bother her.

“I so strongly believe in it, that I want to do it,” she said, her voice full of enthusiasm. “I just have this thing where if there’s work that has to get done, it’s gotta get done and you have to do it. So even if people are telling you that you can’t, but you really want to and you believe you can, and you know you can do it, then do the work.”

Young astrophysicist at work

This year has already been loaded with opportunities for Julie.

For starters, in January, she was awarded the Mars Generation’s 24 Under 24 Innovators in STEAM and Space Advocacy Award. Part of the reason she won this award can be attributed to her substantial internet advocacy of science. In addition to producing her own web news series (Supernova Style Science news, “where I share amazing science news that will blow your mind supernova style.”), she also regularly posts science news on her social media accounts. Additionaly, with the help of three other young women scientists, Julie started STEAM Squad, an online community dedicated to encouraging young people to get involved in STEAM projects and education.

As if that wasn’t enough, in June, she attended her second NASA Wallops, which sponsors the Cubes in Space program. She won the spot this year for two of her experiment entries, one which tests structural foam to see which kind is stronger and another testing different pieces of glass to see if the amount of silica in the glass changes how much cosmic radiation it can bend.

“I have a bunch of friends who want to be astronauts, and just for astronauts in general, I just want to make sure they are super safe in space,” she said of the impetus for the glass experiment. “And if I can find a way to protect them better, I want to do that. For the structural foam, it’s being looked at for use in aerospace and other applications. And if I can find the strongest kinds, then that will better help protect everyone.”

She was also chosen as the student lead and organizer for her group at Wallops that saw two of their experiments go up on the NASA sounding rocket and three in a NASA balloon.

Additionally, she was invited with 20 other students from the Boston area — the only one from a public school, by the way — to the MIT Media Lab to build design and build a CubeSat, which uses infrared to study climate science. She said they are just getting underway now but the cube will probably launch next year.

She also recently learned that she is the 2018 state merit winner for the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge for her Sage Survival System device.

“What my device is is a portable device that can use distillation or filtration to give developing countries and disaster areas like Puerto Rico improved access to clean and safe drinking water,” she said.

Laser focus on the future

Julie is headed off to Nashua North High School this fall where she expects, or hopes anyway, that things will be different. Her mom hopes that the advanced math and science classes she will be in will separate her from the kids who tormented her in middle school. Julie said she’s looking forward to all that she’s going to learn.

“What I really want to do is study black holes because black holes are just so cool and super amazing, and there is just so much awesomeness. And also I want to know if there is a theory of everything. If there is an equation in the universe to explain it, and if there is, I want to find it,” she said.

“[I’m not working on that just yet], because I am busy doing a lot of things, also I haven’t reached that point because I don’t know everything. There’s still a lot I need to learn. I try to learn as much as I can.”

There is one thing, however, of which she is certain:

“I care so much about [science],” she said. “I just want to do it so bad that I just don’t care that other people think it is stupid. I still want to do it. It is my passion. And I don’t have to follow along with what they say, because it’s my life, not theirs.

“I find a lot of joy in it. I absolutely love it.”    

Melanie Plenda is an award-winning freelance writer and longtime contributor to ParentingNH.